“When you get out there will only be a cement platform. To the left of the platform there will be a dirt track, walk down the path through the forest for about ten minutes until you see three wooden houses. You might see a big black dog that looks a bit like a bear but don’t be scared because he’s friendly, there might also be an old drunk guy but he’s harmless too. You need to go to the double-storey house in the middle and Artemus will sort you out.”
These were the instructions our Canadian host gave us to help us find a sauna owned by some Russian guy in the middle of the Lithuanian forest. Of course, the instructions were accompanied by a hand drawn map, complete with stick figures and houses with swirly smoke coming out of chimneys on triangular rooves. So I set out with my new Aussie and American friends to find the ultimate sauna experience.
After a two hour train trip we arrived at Zervynos. Our Canadian host wasn’t lying, there was literally a cement slab which served as a platform and two signs announcing where we were. The instructions we’d been given were surprisingly accurate and we didn’t have much trouble finding Artemus (we found the dog too, or rather he found us … although we never met the drunk). Our Russian host was already preparing the sauna and after a cold wait it was eventually ready for us.
This wasn’t your average two-foot by four-foot hotel sauna, this was a purpose-built log cabin sauna, complete with a massive pit of rocks, heated underneath by fire. A cup of cold water poured over the rocks would create enough steam to drive a train! There were long benches built around the pit and an adjacent change room.
I’m not a huge fan of saunas at the best of times but the idea of trying the real thing appealed to me for about the first five minutes, then I got hot, felt like I couldn’t breathe and wanted out. But I dug in and for the next half an hour sweated bullets. I was pretty happy when the other girls agreed it was time to get out. It was a relief to get outside where the temperature was hovering somewhere around 10 degrees. However, I wasn’t relieved when it was time to jump in the river, conveniently located about 20 metres from the sauna. The temperature of the water in the river felt like it was hovering somewhere around minus ten degrees and pretty soon I couldn’t wait to get back into the sauna!
Apparently any proper Lithuanian/Russian sauna experience (or just any Lithuanian/Russian experience in general) must be accompanied by liquor. We’d brought along bottles of brandy and Irish Cream and chased our chilly dip with shots to warm ourselves up again. And so followed the next four hours, sweating it out, dipping, drinking and intermittently beating each other with bunches of leaves Artemus had kindly provided. Apparently this enhances the effect of the heat in the sauna and actually isn’t as painful as it sounds. This went on until we couldn’t bring ourselves to jump in the freezing water again.
Dropping by Artemus’ house on the way back to the train we stumbled across a Russian gathering and had the obligatory vodka shot and some weird fried meat chaser, while making our best attempts to speak to our new Russian friends (which for me pretty much just meant gesticulating wildly with my hands). Then the three of us stumbled back to the platform in the middle of the Lithuanian forest … and the photos tell the rest of the story!